Doing What We See Jesus Doing (Ps. 23; Acts 9:36-43; Jn. 10:22-30)
Through the years I’ve had the privilege of forming relationships with people who have grown up in church, but for one reason or another, in later years have become distanced from Christian thought and people. My experience is that many of these people have been taught the most simplistic view of Christian history and the Bible, and, when they grew up, discovered that life was more complex than these views allowed. Mistaking that childish form of Christianity to be the only, or true, version of it, they have chosen to sacrifice it rather than sacrifice their intellect in science, history, or many other areas. Inviting such people back toward faith by insisting that Christians don’t have to be simplistic has been rewarding for me. To take this another direction, and even more basically, I have found others that have mistaken Christian faith for the confession of what are called “orthodox doctrines” that they, as life went on, simply found incomprehensible: the incarnation, the Trinity, the atonement of Jesus, the resurrection, and many others. They have assumed, because they have been so taught, that being Christian meant affirming some such list of doctrines, “just so” and when they couldn’t anymore they assumed they had to give up being a Christian, or were told by Christians they already had.
It was not this way so much in the earliest Christian days, before the faith went out into the world to deal with Greek philosophy and culture. Then, Christianity was not so much a system to be affirmed (or else), but a life to be lived in relationship with God in Christ. This life grew out of many ways of thinking about and talking about that relationship. As Christianity gained political and economic power in the world, it chose to define itself in certain ways, alas, often to consolidate or extend that power, and excommunicated (or killed or imprisoned) those who differed from those ways that the powerful had dictated. Alas, in some places, this is still true. Of course, it is also true that some ways of thinking about God, Christ, the world, and the Bible have proved more constructive and helpful than others, it is even truer that Christianity’s genius is not to be found in its doctrines, but in the way of life it affirms as enabled by God in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. One never finds Jesus, for example, saying that following him is equivalent to affirming certain doctrines. It’s about practices more than beliefs.
For example, in our Gospel Lesson, there were some religious folk from the elite Jerusalem leadership who had been trying to listen to what Jesus said about himself to find out whether he was what many of the common people of the land claimed him to be – the promised anointed one (or Messiah) that would bring glory and peace to Israel. To these folk, to be the Messiah meant being the one who would destroy the Roman Empire as a world power, end foreign domination of the Jewish people, and bring justice, which meant returning Jewish people to political (and spiritual) prominence. They believed God had promised the Messiah would do all these things. Did Jesus fit that picture?
These folk came to Jesus one December as he was celebrating the Feast of Hanukkah. Hanukkah commemorated the cleansing of the Temple from a foreign dictator in 164 BCE, so their thoughts would have already been focused on all this Messiah business that would bring them back to the spotlight. They wanted to know, without any religious double-talk, whether Jesus was this Messiah or not. Jesus said that he had already answered their question by what he’d been doing in his ministry, but they wouldn’t commit to follow him because “they weren’t his sheep.” I don’t think Jesus meant that those of his sheep were saved and those who weren’t were not, though some preachers today think so. He was simply being descriptive. In the wider context of John 10, Jesus had already called himself the Good Shepherd. One thing good shepherds do is know their sheep. Their sheep also know them. Jesus was saying that these folk weren’t able to see that he was the Messiah because they had the wrong standpoint. They had their ideas of what the Messiah had to be, and, if they didn’t see those things, they couldn’t see the Messiah. Given change in times and language, which of us is different? We all have ways that we insist on seeing Jesus (saviour, sacrificial victim, superstar, wisdom teacher, guarantor of our security, wealth, and health, and many other culturally comfortable categories). If we can’t see Jesus in our categories, we have trouble seeing him at all. But, if we don’t see him for who he is, we will misunderstand what Jesus is about. Jesus’ own identity was shaped by his Bible and characters such as the servant of the Lord, the Son of Man, and the Shepherd of Israel. What Jesus says here, is “Look at what I do,” for I am what I do.” More to that he says, “What I am doing, God is doing.” or, as John puts it, “The Father and I are one.” This sentence isn’t saying that the person of God and Jesus are one, but that Jesus’ actions and God’s are one.
What are some of these actions? Our Old Testament Lesson is that most beloved of the Psalms, the 23rd. It is commonly agreed that this short poem (53 words in Hebrew), expresses the Psalmist’s bedrock trust in God because of what God does. God’s person is defined in God’s actions. God is what God does. And what does God do? Simply listen to the words:
“God makes me lie down in green pastures, and leads me beside still waters.” God does what is necessary to provide for me. “God restores my soul,” or in more up to date language, brings me back to life. God knows when I’ve pretty much reached the end of my tether and does what is helpful to bring new life from old death, not literally but truly, nonetheless. And God “leads me in the right paths simply because God has a name, a reputation, for doing so.” That is, God provides fruitful paths in which to go through life and arrive at the right destination. Someone once paraphrased all this by saying God feeds us, heeds us, and leads us.
Furthermore God does all this in the context of a threatening and, by times, downright hostile environment: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no harm, for you are with me to strengthen and protect me with your rod and your staff.”
Rich provisions come from God in all kinds of places, even hostile ones, and give us resources with which to flourish. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.”
Indeed, God’s own helpful loyalty and love for us will never leave us alone, but will pursue us wherever we go, so that we are in God’s presence to the very end. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.”
To put the Gospel and the Old Testament Lessons together: Jesus and God are known by their acts of love, mercy, restoration, steadfastness, guidance, provision, protection, and endless goodness and loyalty. Jesus and God both create new life out of old death – a fitting thought in this resurrection season. Jesus and God are united in action on our behalf
Now, our Acts Lesson gives us a story that suggests how followers of God in Christ might imitate the actions of God and Jesus in their world. Here’s the story: Tabitha, the Aramaic word for Gazelle, the Greek for which is Dorcas, was an early Christian woman who was involved in the ministry of social action. She provided clothing for widows in her community. But, one day, Dorcas died. Peter, in a way that modelled Jesus’ raising of the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5, Matthew 9 and Luke 8, which in turn modelled work done by Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament, brought Tabitha/Dorcas back to life. He said, “Tabitha, arise,” and she did. Now, at this point, some of us here today begin to get uncomfortable. Does this story suggest that we’re supposed to start grabbing dead people by the hand, saying, “so and so, arise” and jerking them to their feet alive? What are we to make of this passage of scripture, especially in the light of our other two? Our Acts Lesson suggests a truth for us, but, of course, it’s in the culturally specific language of New Testament times. I remind you that the Bible always speaks in such culturally specific language, but sometimes It’s just a little more foreign to us than it is other times. Our whole standpoint on life and death is radically different from that of Peter’s day. And that’s OK.
I know full well that there are some Christians who will think the only way to be faithful to this biblical story is to attempt now what Peter did just months or at most a year after Jesus’ resurrection. I have met some of these people and frankly, they weird me out. I do not think that we have to adopt a stance that says that we must be 1st century Christian people, as if we really could, in order to be Christians in the 21st century. I do not believe that God expects us to be anything but 21st century people to be Christians in the 21st century.
So, what do the words of the Acts Lesson teach us today, not about Tabitha and Peter, but about us and our ministries? Does the Resurrection power of Jesus still make life out of death now? Can we still hear the words “Tabitha arise, and If so, how? Through the centuries, Christians have responded, “Yes,” taking the Bible seriously, if not in a woodenly literalistic way. Tabitha looked at what Jesus did in his day, taking God’s love and mercy to people in specific ways, and translated it into terms of need in her day and place. For her, doing what she saw Jesus doing meant making clothing for widows. She translated Jesus’ love into specific concrete acts relevant in her community.
What she saw Jesus doing was, basically, taking old life, and as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5 making it, “a new creation, everything old passing away, everything becoming new.” Our standpoint is radically altered to act in ways that God acts in contemporary terms, which, Psalm 23 told us, include acts of love, mercy, restoration, steadfastness, guidance, provision, protection, and endless goodness and loyalty. These kinds of things still bring new life out of old death in remarkable ways.
Tabitha can become a model for us. What kinds of new things might we do with and for one another, and with and for our community that say that we are watching the way God in Jesus acts in 2016? We must, of course, translate biblical words into terms that people will understand today, which is a task with which I try to help by preaching and teaching week by week. I believe it is our mandate to model with what we do and say that God still cares more about bringing wholeness than about buying happiness, and about sharing than about shouting, about health and wholeness than about hate and half-truth, about our caring than about our comfort. As I say this comes, first by doing what we see Jesus doing, and so being the vehicle of transformative resurrection life for our communities in 2016. All this demands our very best thought, prayer, and action, and, although this is hard work, it’s the work we are called on to think through and carry out in Jesus’ name. What it means, in short, is to be known by our daring deeds not by our long-winded creeds. When we involve ourselves in such thought and action – doing what God and Jesus are doing, both we and people out there are raised from death to resurrection life shared with God in Christ, in the power of the Spirit.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.